Saturday, 23 July 2011

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?

In June, Wendy Seltzer (Freedom to Tinker) posted a fascinating piece on the privacy issues surrounding Facebook's roll-out of facial recognition software. Whilst Seltzer's article is an interesting contribution to the wider debate about online privacy, the real surprise for me was the revelation that Dropbox employees can access users' files despite previous assurances that its servers were encrypted and that users' data was"inaccessible without [an] account password".

The unseemly rush to cloud computing is an issue that has been nagging at me for a while but, until now, I've found it hard to articulate why it makes me uneasy. Even a cursory evaluation of the potential of facilities like Dropbox and Ubuntu One reveal obvious benefits; not least, disaster recovery and (authorized) data sharing. Moreover, many commentators seem both comfortable with the concept of third-party storage/services and unconcerned that personal data is potentially vulnerable to unauthorized access; as Sarah Jacobsson Purewal puts it:

"Ok, so no worries--so long as you're not doing anything wrong, you should be fine. So why is this news?"

However, I can think of a number of reasons why it might not be fine if personal data is accessed and disseminated without the owner's consent or knowledge. Let's start with the easy stuff. Those backups of personal files stored in the cloud (you know, financial records, medical files, compromising emails to a lover and the like) are valuable - not only to the owner, but also to those that steal identities - that makes them financially valuable and more attractive to dishonest employees. Of course, it may not be dishonest employees that pose the greatest danger of data theft from third-party servers! Some providers don't even encrypt users' data on their servers, for instance, Ubuntu One tells us:

"We do not store your files encrypted in our data storage since we need them unencrypted in order to send them to the people you choose to share with. If you are concerned about storing your files unencrypted in the Ubuntu One cloud, you could always store the files already encrypted so Ubuntu One never sees the plain text files. Doing so may prevent the proper functionality of some Ubuntu One features such as multiple computer synchronization, web browser access, and sharing with others. "
I don't suppose that I need point out that Sony, RSA, & the IMF have all been victims of hacking attempts during 2011 - it's worth thinking about that fact before uploading plain text files to third-party servers!

Whilst data theft is perhaps the most obvious risk, users should also think carefully about the reliability of a service and continuity of access. Service providers can fail or simply withdraw a service; governments and laws change with dizzying frequency; infrastructures may collapse and any of these can result in a user being separated (either temporarily or permanently) from his data. Couple this with the fact that a user in the UK may be storing data on a server in the US and the whole morass becomes a little more complicated.

Even if access and theft are considered manageable risks, there's also the concern of data corruption (or destruction) through hardware failure of software viruses: not every service provider implements the latest security patches!

The fact is that, once you upload information to a third-party server, you effectively surrender control over that information. That doesn't (necessarily) make The Cloud a bad place, but users should not rely on service providers to protect them. Take reasonable precautions to protect your own data:

  • Do not upload plain text documents to a storage facility (unless you don't care whether they can be accessed without permission).
  • Do not rely on the service provider's encryption mechanisms - encrypt your own data.
  • Have a Plan C for accessing your data.

Sources & References:

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